The Descent of Man – Day 143 of 151


This practice is now very common throughout the world, and there is reason to believe that it prevailed much more extensively during former times. (12. Mr. M’Lennan, ‘Primitive Marriage,’ 1865. See especially on exogamy and infanticide, pp. 130, 138, 165.) Barbarians find it difficult to support themselves and their children, and it is a simple plan to kill their infants. In South America some tribes, according to Azara, formerly destroyed so many infants of both sexes that they were on the point of extinction. In the Polynesian Islands women have been known to kill from four or five, to even ten of their children; and Ellis could not find a single woman who had not killed at least one. In a village on the eastern frontier of India Colonel MacCulloch found not a single female child. Wherever infanticide (13. Dr. Gerland (‘Ueber das Aussterben der Naturvolker,’ 1868) has collected much information on infanticide, see especially ss. 27, 51, 54. Azara (‘Voyages,’ etc., tom. ii. pp. 94, 116) enters in detail on the motives. See also M’Lennan (ibid. p. 139) for cases in India. In the former reprints of the 2nd edition of this book an incorrect quotation from Sir G. Grey was unfortunately given in the above passage and has now been removed from the text.) prevails the struggle for existence will be in so far less severe, and all the members of the tribe will have an almost equally good chance of rearing their few surviving children. In most cases a larger number of female than of male infants are destroyed, for it is obvious that the latter are of more value to the tribe, as they will, when grown up, aid in defending it, and can support themselves. But the trouble experienced by the women in rearing children, their consequent loss of beauty, the higher estimation set on them when few, and their happier fate, are assigned by the women themselves, and by various observers, as additional motives for infanticide.

When, owing to female infanticide, the women of a tribe were few, the habit of capturing wives from neighbouring tribes would naturally arise. Sir J. Lubbock, however, as we have seen, attributes the practice in chief part to the former existence of communal marriage, and to the men having consequently captured women from other tribes to hold as their sole property. Additional causes might be assigned, such as the communities being very small, in which case, marriageable women would often be deficient. That the habit was most extensively practised during former times, even by the ancestors of civilised nations, is clearly shewn by the preservation of many curious customs and ceremonies, of which Mr. M’Lennan has given an interesting account. In our own marriages the “best man” seems originally to have been the chief abettor of the bridegroom in the act of capture. Now as long as men habitually procured their wives through violence and craft, they would have been glad to seize on any woman, and would not have selected the more attractive ones. But as soon as the practice of procuring wives from a distinct tribe was effected through barter, as now occurs in many places, the more attractive women would generally have been purchased. The incessant crossing, however, between tribe and tribe, which necessarily follows from any form of this habit, would tend to keep all the people inhabiting the same country nearly uniform in character; and this would interfere with the power of sexual selection in differentiating the tribes.

The scarcity of women, consequent on female infanticide, leads, also, to another practice, that of polyandry, still common in several parts of the world, and which formerly, as Mr. M’Lennan believes, prevailed almost universally: but this latter conclusion is doubted by Mr. Morgan and Sir J. Lubbock. (14. ‘Primitive Marriage,’ p. 208; Sir J. Lubbock, ‘Origin of Civilisation,’ p. 100. See also Mr. Morgan, loc. cit., on the former prevalence of polyandry.) Whenever two or more men are compelled to marry one woman, it is certain that all the women of the tribe will get married, and there will be no selection by the men of the more attractive women. But under these circumstances the women no doubt will have the power of choice, and will prefer the more attractive men. Azara, for instance, describes how carefully a Guana woman bargains for all sorts of privileges, before accepting some one or more husbands; and the men in consequence take unusual care of their personal appearance. So amongst the Todas of India, who practise polyandry, the girls can accept or refuse any man. (15. Azara, ‘Voyages,’ etc., tom. ii. pp. 92-95; Colonel Marshall, ‘Amongst the Todas,’ p. 212.) A very ugly man in these cases would perhaps altogether fail in getting a wife, or get one later in life; but the handsomer men, although more successful in obtaining wives, would not, as far as we can see, leave more offspring to inherit their beauty than the less handsome husbands of the same women.

Early Betrothals and Slavery of Women

With many savages it is the custom to betroth the females whilst mere infants; and this would effectually prevent preference being exerted on either side according to personal appearance. But it would not prevent the more attractive women from being afterwards stolen or taken by force from their husbands by the more powerful men; and this often happens in Australia, America, and elsewhere. The same consequences with reference to sexual selection would to a certain extent follow, when women are valued almost solely as slaves or beasts of burden, as is the case with many savages. The men, however, at all times would prefer the handsomest slaves according to their standard of beauty.

We thus see that several customs prevail with savages which must greatly interfere with, or completely stop, the action of sexual selection. On the other hand, the conditions of life to which savages are exposed, and some of their habits, are favourable to natural selection; and this comes into play at the same time with sexual selection. Savages are known to suffer severely from recurrent famines; they do not increase their food by artificial means; they rarely refrain from marriage (16. Burchell says (‘Travels in S. Africa,’ vol. ii. 1824, p. 58), that among the wild nations of Southern Africa, neither men nor women ever pass their lives in a state of celibacy. Azara (‘Voyages dans l’Amerique Merid.’ tom. ii. 1809, p. 21) makes precisely the same remark in regard to the wild Indians of South America.), and generally marry whilst young. Consequently they must be subjected to occasional hard struggles for existence, and the favoured individuals will alone survive.

At a very early period, before man attained to his present rank in the scale, many of his conditions would be different from what now obtains amongst savages. Judging from the analogy of the lower animals, he would then either live with a single female, or be a polygamist. The most powerful and able males would succeed best in obtaining attractive females. They would also succeed best in the general struggle for life, and in defending their females, as well as their offspring, from enemies of all kinds. At this early period the ancestors of man would not be sufficiently advanced in intellect to look forward to distant contingencies; they would not foresee that the rearing of all their children, especially their female children, would make the struggle for life severer for the tribe. They would be governed more by their instincts and less by their reason than are savages at the present day. They would not at that period have partially lost one of the strongest of all instincts, common to all the lower animals, namely the love of their young offspring; and consequently they would not have practised female infanticide. Women would not have been thus rendered scarce, and polyandry would not have been practised; for hardly any other cause, except the scarcity of women seems sufficient to break down the natural and widely prevalent feeling of jealousy, and the desire of each male to possess a female for himself. Polyandry would be a natural stepping-stone to communal marriages or almost promiscuous intercourse; though the best authorities believe that this latter habit preceded polyandry. During primordial times there would be no early betrothals, for this implies foresight. Nor would women be valued merely as useful slaves or beasts of burthen. Both sexes, if the females as well as the males were permitted to exert any choice, would choose their partners not for mental charms, or property, or social position, but almost solely from external appearance. All the adults would marry or pair, and all the offspring, as far as that was possible, would be reared; so that the struggle for existence would be periodically excessively severe. Thus during these times all the conditions for sexual selection would have been more favourable than at a later period, when man had advanced in his intellectual powers but had retrograded in his instincts. Therefore, whatever influence sexual selection may have had in producing the differences between the races of man, and between man and the higher Quadrumana, this influence would have been more powerful at a remote period than at the present day, though probably not yet wholly lost.

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